SXSW 2008: Feels Just Like the First Time

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Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg

Day Four: Saturday, March 15

One particularly noteworthy cast of characters in Austin is the group(s) of flying creatures that swarm throughout the city. Those new to the city should take note that at sundown, one can witness enormous groupings of bats flying over the city, particularly at Town Lake. We happened to catch site of these nocturnal inhabitants walking back from the Lamar Pedestrian Bridge happening, soaring overhead and looking super cool. If you think about it, bats are the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll spirit animal. They come out at night, they’re dressed in black, and travel by means of following sound. The other flying critters you come to notice in Austin are the grackles-dark colored birds that let out a startlingly loud, rattle-like cry. In a sense, they’re pretty rock ‘n’ roll too, considering how much noise they make.

On Saturday, we witnessed the noisiest group of bands to play before us all week. The noise didn’t quite come with a continuous, bludgeoning series of blows, but rather in increments, accruing greater levels of volume and distortion over the course of the day. The first band of the day, Blitzen Trapper, wasn’t actually all that deafening, but they certainly rocked out at the Paste/Stereogum party at Volume. The Portland group plays a beefy hybrid of Southern rock, jangly pop, electronic and just good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll that equates to something that, by rights, everyone should love. I, for one, found their performance to be nothing short of kickass, as they projected a sort of confidence and power that some of their peers could afford to bone up on. As with Bowerbirds, this is a band whose most recent album, Wild Mountain Nation, I definitely need to be turning up more in the coming weeks.

No Age

A tangent: just a few weeks ago, my brother and I were complaining about how Los Angeles music has become stagnant, with bands coming out in seemingly two camps: those who sound like Rilo Kiley and those who sound like Silversun Pickups. I realized not long thereafter how shortsighted an observation that is. Case in point: No Age. This insanely talented, fresh, intense, not to mention hard-working band (I don’t know the exact number, but I count at least eight performances during the week) single-handedly makes L.A. automatically the coolest city in the United States at the moment, no matter how many Rilo copycats water down its cred.

Following Blitzen Trapper at Volume, No Age unleashed an overwhelming level of sound, considering the band is just two dudes. Dean Spunt and Randy Randall, who have a new album titled Nouns coming out on Sub Pop in May, played a set that most certainly stands as one of the absolute best of the week. Their new songs (some of which, admittedly, I had heard at their show with the Liars in February) gave an inkling of just what kind of punk rock masterpiece we may be in for, as they masterfully combine raw power with melody and even a bit of shoegazer density. Awesome stuff, but so is the material from Weirdo Rippers, which never fails to excite. The duo blasted through “Every Artist Needs A Tragedy,” “Boy Void” and “My Life’s Alright Without You” with so much energy, you’d hardly think they’ve been playing two to three shows a day in the dates prior. As with most of their shows, the climactic point arrived when they played “Everybody’s Down.” Unencumbered by drums during the first half of the song, Spunt stood behind the mic to deliver his vocals, while Randall climbed P.A. speakers and rocked his riffs on high, only to have both lock into place during the song’s explosive close.


Now, my claim that No Age, alone, bolsters the City of Angels’ cred is, by all means, true, they actually have good company in groups like Mika Miko and HEALTH. The latter was the next to play the Stereogum and PASTE party, though as I discussed with more than a few people that day, HEALTH seems very unlike a Paste sort of band, and the group, themselves, even thanked Stereogum for the invitation first, paused momentarily, and then extended kudos to Paste. Mis-matched media outlets to artists or not, the show became an even more incendiary event when HEALTH took to the stage. The L.A. quartet had an impressive and intimidating arsenal of effects pedals, keyboards and drums, all of which were utilized to form a sound unlike most rock bands you’ll hear. They alternated between one-minute bursts of noise and droning, if unlikely accessible songs with melodies buried beneath their distorted exterior. Limbs flailed, bodies leapt, strings buzzed-HEALTH’s live show was an awe-inspiring sight and feast for the ears.

A dinner break was in order after the Volume soiree, and the burger and fries (homemade, mind you) at Jo’s were out of sight. I was intrigued, as well, by their pulled pork Frito pie, but I have no complaints about my menu choice; they grill up an awesome burger. Rebounding from the energy recharge, we walked to Waterloo Park to catch the tail end of Mess With Texas, which was headlined by The Breeders and NOFX. No offense to Fat Mike & Co., but we opted for the former in their competing time slot. While the performance could, in no way, compete with the prior acts we had seen that day, they did remind me how good those songs on Last Splash truly are.

Back to the city, we chose to end the evening, and the week, at the Indie 103.1 showcase at the Cedar Courtyard. We arrived just in time for Neon Neon, the new collaborative project between Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip, expanded to a five-piece live. With more curiosity than expectations, Neon Neon proved to be more than a pleasant surprise-they were an absolute delight, playing eight songs from their new album Stainless Style, each which pulsed with new wave energy and a commanding rock power. For closing sex jam “Sweatshop,” the band was even joined onstage by Yo Majesty, who guests on the album as well.

The Deadly Syndrome

Recent Dim Mak golden boys The Deadly Syndrome did their thing next, and what a thing it was. Slowly proceeding to the stage in formation, shaking tambourines and clapping in rhythm, the band revealed their showmanship before playing a single note. And that showmanship surged through every note. TDS plays extremely accessible indie pop in the vein of The Shins, The Arcade Fire and Spoon, all smooshed together with a bit of power pop sheen. What sets them apart is the intensity and passion in their performance. As much as I love Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins are a hopelessly boring live act. You certainly can’t say that about The Deadly Syndrome. Now, I still think they’ve yet to release their defining, classic album, but hell, after this performance, I’d believe they had it in them. I would venture to guess the group of people in front of me would agree, high-fiving each other between each song and repeating the band’s name: ‘The Deadly Syndrome!’

A Place to Bury Strangers

Though not the main event, as The Airborne Toxic Event were headlining, A Place to Bury Strangers were the best reason to come to the showcase, as they were the best band of the three exceptional acts we saw (so, you know, that’s saying a lot). We were warned ahead of time to bring earplugs, and, since we came prepared, didn’t end up deaf at the end of the night. That said, that’s one loud band. This New York trio has laid claim to being the ‘loudest band in New York’ and with so many effects running through their rig, distortion and feedback become the fourth and fifth members of the band by default.

Something like a dark, moody combination of My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain and The Cure, A Place to Bury Strangers made a sound that few could forget. “To Fix The Gash In Your Head” had an added boost of muscle thanks to live drums, as opposed to the industrial drum machine sound on record. And “I Know I’ll See You” was almost gothic in its sinister grooves. Visuals, albeit subtle, really made the show the climax that it was. Lights were dimmed and strobes flickered, leaving little to interrupt the moody atmosphere. Singer and guitarist Oliver Ackerman even paused from playing and singing during one song just to gaze, eerily at the crowd. It was intense, but man, was it ever cool.

With that final show and a couple of cocktails, the week came to a close. We saw an incredible run of great bands, had some tasty food, some Lone Stars, even more Shiners, and made some new friends as well. On the shuttle back to the airport Sunday morning, we saw a Popeye’s marquee that had been vandalized, with ‘butterfly shrimp’ changed to ‘Butt Her Fly Srim P.’ It’s good to see that even when the ruckus seems contained to a centralized downtown area, there’s still debauchery to spare.

I came out of SXSW learning that no matter what advice anyone gives you, your experience is ultimately what you choose to make it. Whether you spend some time checking out poster art at Flatstock, taking in a few panel discussions or cramming as much music into the week as humanly possible, there’s no wrong way to do it. But do it with some Texas beer (Lone Star or Shiner, either one’s good), and meet some new people while you’re at it. This guy’s got my back just in case the crowds get rowdy…

Day One: Wednesday, March 12
Day Two: Thursday, March 13
Day Three: Friday, March 14

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